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Nia Witherspoon discusses the Black Arts Movement, inspirations

Courtesy of Dr. Nia Witherspoon

Courtesy of Dr. Nia Witherspoon

Nia Witherspoon has only been with the Herberger Institute for two years, but she is already making waves on campus.

A professor of the Theater of the Americas Ph.D program at the Herberger Institute for Design and Arts, not only did she create the Black Arts Matter event, but she also directed the supporting show "The America Play," which tells the story of an African-American man who capitalizes off his resemblance to Abraham Lincoln.

Mary Stephens, a proprietor of the Performance at the Borderlands group that produced Black Arts Matter, said that Witherspoon wanted to focus on creativity and black life. 

"Witherspoon brings something really special in the sense that she's able to move us outside of thinking about stereotype, and outside of the frequent representation of black death," Stephens said.

Philadelphia native Witherspoon received her doctorate from Stanford University after graduating with a major in theater performance studies. She called her six-year time in the university "intense."

Related: Black Arts Matter set to close Black History Month with performance, discussion

"The great thing about the program was that it was working at the intersections of theory and practice," Witherspoon said. "So we weren't just reading, we were also making a lot of work. I got the chance to ground my practice as an artist scholar."

She said the Phoenix area is new to her and that she experienced a lot of acculturation since her time here. In regards to ASU, she said while she and Theater of the Americas had to lobby to have "The America Play" performed, she appreciated the school's openness towards it.

"I really love the students here," Witherspoon said. "I love growing relationships with the students, particularly through directing — I think that's kind of a different closeness you can sometimes get from the classroom."

As the creator of Black Arts Matter, Witherspoon garnered the idea for the event from the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement when the phrase began to circulate and grow in popularity.

"I was starting to see my peers really mobilizing and take action in the streets to value black lives, and I found it truly inspiring," she said.

As an artist, Witherspoon said she finds herself taking inspiration from instances of black-led activism. In past work, she's drawn from moments such as the slave rebellion which saw slaves craft their own colonies and populations. She also referenced the 1960s, namely the era of the Black Panthers and nationalism.

"I'm really drawn to these periods of change and of possibility and of sovereignty," Witherspoon said. "I think I had kind of lost some hope in being able to live to see that in my day. When Black Lives Matter was happening, I was just really inspired."

"To see a movement around black folks being black and valuing black life was really inspiring to me, and renewed my faith in the cycle of revolutions — that revolutions will continue to happen."

Moving to Phoenix motivated her to move forward with the event. With the assistance of Performance at the Borderlands, word got out to the local art community which brought in requests from many artists. Witherspoon said this interest turned the event into a combination — artists at the national level, and those from the local community.

"People kind of heard what we were doing through the grape vine," Witherspoon said. "They said, 'Oh, can I do this?' or 'I want to celebrate the youth through poetry.'"

That said, Witherspoon hopes to see the event "spider" and go long term as more than a week-long event. She sees chapters under the Black Arts Matter banner, as well as yearly events aside from one per year.

"I don't want to see it confined to February," she said. "I see it as kind of a larger arm of the Black Lives Matter movement — I see Black Arts Matter as a movement, as something that's on going."

"The America Play" is under Witherspoon's directorial lead. The two-act play was originally conceived by playwright Suzi-Lori Parks, and it premiered at Yale University in 1994.

Related: 'The America Play' moves the audience in an attempt to find the Foundling Father

"It's this irreverent reading of Lincoln," Witherspoon said. "He's beyond himself as this kind of celebrity and is someone who can be performed over and over.

"There's this kind of untouchableness — there's an aura that we surround these cultural figures with that doesn't permit for a lot of critique."

She said the play is articulating a subconscious bitterness that whites had for the new world order after the freeing of the slaves — that blacks had the potential for being equals. The scenes where volunteers act out the assassination of Lincoln on stage represents a form of double satisfaction — they're not only killing a black man, but they're also killing the man who freed them.

"It's a play about watching and it's a play about spectatorship," Witherspoon said. "One that's very critical about white spectatorship. Most of act one is spectators going in and shooting Lincoln, and basically getting off."

She called it a "sometimes violent, sometimes erotic" pleasure, a term the play makes multiple references toward.

Witherspoon hopes that visitors "gain an affirm a sense of community around valuing black lives."

"I hope that people, especially black artists and artists of color, feel empowered to keep doing the amazing work they're doing, and to reimagine new ways of contributing to this very important social movement."

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